Three Things I Wish Someone Told Me About a Career in SEO


SEO MemeI don’t know if I have ever met an SEO who entered the field intentionally. One way or another, we Stumbled Upon (cheesy pun intended) this field and thought to ourselves, “Wow. This stuff is effing cool.”

In all seriousness, though, I wish someone had told me what to expect when I first discovered this fascinating career choice. Not knowing anything about it when I started, I approached everything in wide-eyed wonder, as though I had just fallen down the rabbit hole and entered another dimension. I had always taken the Internet and Google for granted. I entered a query, I got a response—done. What else did I need to know? As it turns out, I needed to know a lot.

Success in SEO = Adaptability

SEO is a moving target. When I started in the industry just four years ago, the playing field was quite different. When I first entered the game, PageRank was everything and strategic link building was akin to a science—you could build ‘x’ number of links with ‘y’ amount of PageRank and predictably produce ‘z’ as the result. Blog comments still contained followed links. Yahoo Answers was “cool.” Twitter was fresh. Everyone was trying to “go viral.”

Then I left the industry to do some traditional marketing, and when I came back just two and a half years later, I felt very far behind. I remember asking Rhea what an infographic was on my first day. (I believe her response was, “Oh, that’s adorable.”) While I was away, Panda had managed to turn the SEO world on its head. Content marketing was now “THE thing.” Pinterest… what the **** is that?

And it wasn’t only the rules that had changed, but the major players as well. In two years, the competitive landscape had shifted drastically. When I joined Outspoken Media, I was hearing names I had never heard two years prior. And people I had followed closely in the past? Many were either no longer in the field, or no longer relevant.

My point? If you want to have a long-lasting career in SEO, you have to be adaptable and you have to be fundamentally okay with change. You will never wake up in the morning feeling like “Well, think I know everything there is to know about SEO.” There is no such thing. And anyone who tells you they do know everything will be irrelevant two years from now. That way of thinking serves no one.

A Charles Darwin quote I read recently at a museum illustrates this point:

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

The ever-changing nature of this field is not without its perks. Yes, it’s very difficult to grow a business and a brand when you feel like the course is always shifting around you. But this natural instability creates an environment where anyone can become a stand-out. Be the one to learn the most about the newest update or the next big link building method, and you can establish yourself in the minds of industry leaders and clients alike. Constant change breeds innovation, and innovation creates new opportunities.

Once You Go There, You Can Never Go Back

Shortly after starting my career in SEO, I remember telling a friend that I felt as though I had gotten a backstage pass to the Internet. Crawling bots, indexing, meta tags, and algorithms… suddenly the Internet isn’t so simple anymore. Everything feels different. I can no longer run a search query without wondering why particular sites are being served up. I’ll be at home looking for chicken recipes, and I’ll find myself analyzing backlinks, trying to figure out why certain sites are ranking. I’ve opened up page sources and looked at meta tags. I’ve pored through CSS code. I’ve looked at sites and thought, “I bet I can get a link from that.”

It’s a lot like discovering the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. What an extraordinary discovery! But then—what a different experience after the fact. I‘ll be honest in saying I feel as though I can never trust the Internet again. Because I know (mostly) how it works, and because it’s my job to understand the flaws in the system, I am always on the lookout for spam, MFAs, and inconsistencies in the SERPs. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss. It made looking for BBQ chicken a lot easier, that’s for sure.

Yet, I also feel like I am part of a privileged group who understands, and I feel fortunate to be where I am. For example, how many of us laughed together over “Explaining Your SEO Job to Your Parents?” The reason it is so funny is because it’s so true. We all share that common thread of working in a relatively new and unique field, one that most people outside the field do not understand. And this feeling of being on an island together builds a strong sense of solidarity among us, at a level I have never witnessed in any other industry.

It’s both humbling and inspiring.

Talking About SEO and Doing SEO are Very Different Things

Designing high-impact link building strategies = awesome. Actual link building = not nearly as awesome. Talking about link reclamation efforts = awesome. Actually doing link reclamation = not nearly as awesome. Talking about restructuring a site to funnel link value = awesome. Actually restructuring a site…you get the point.

SEO in theory is awesome. SEO in practice is very tedious, and sometimes even downright mind-numbing. When you tell someone you are in “search engine optimization,” it sounds very high-tech and glamorous, and lots of people are really interested to hear about it. But I don’t feel very glamorous when I have spent seven hours straight queuing up prospects in Raven for pitching the next day.

That’s why I think SEOs love conferences so much. We get to talk about theories and methods and strategies and tools, and we pretend like we aren’t bored out of our minds when we are at our desks, individually categorizing and analyzing backlinks. That’s not to say the implementation process isn’t important—far from it. In fact, implementation is the bread and butter of the industry. But I think there is a reason the SEO field has such a high turnover rate. What people think it is, and what it actually is, are two separate things.

To anyone considering a career in SEO: You deserve to know the truth. Actual SEO work is a pain in the ass. That’s why companies are willing to pay us to do it. It’s time-consuming, repetitive, and very detail-oriented.

I think to be happy in SEO, given the actual nature of the work, you need to have a firm grasp of the end-game, and understand why the work is important. You need to be results-oriented, and you need to be exceptionally patient. SEO works, but it doesn’t usually work over night. There is a long lead time between implementation and gratification.

So, what’s the payoff for all of this tedious toiling? Well, for one thing, if you are good at what you do, it pays pretty well. But more importantly, when you do get to see the results of your work and you can actually watch your clients climb through the SERPs, or build a better online brand, or make their site more user-friendly….Wow, there is no better feeling than that. Really.

Your Comments

  • Rhea

    Love the honesty in this. SEO IS tedious, it does lift the veil from Google and it IS ever-changing. The latter is why I love it. There’s no boredom. Well, except for those tedious tasks! I remember memorizing every lyric of about a dozen different albums in the first month of SEO because keyword insertion in text and reciprocal linking (at the time) didn’t take much thought. It was brutal. But, yeah, when I ranked first for a super competitive term and knew I’d helped a hotel sell out, that was awesome! When done right, we keep people employed. We give them a livelihood. It’s important not to just chase personal achievements, but to see how that relates to the big picture. Rambling now, but the point being, I love this. Keep being honest and outspoken! It’s a pleasure to work beside you.

  • Allison Wax

    Interestingly enough, SEO is an ever changing field that will always be shifting and morphing into something it wasn’t, even two years ago, this ever growing field is what keeps us on our toes though I believe. You just have to be open to learning new things and change, Thanks for this great information.

  • Tess Tackett

    FABULOUS post! As an SEO content writer (which is in no way comparable to an SEO expert) I’ve seen incredible changes myself, and in recent months have been thankful that I was always one of the few who focused on quality content rather than ensuring I had as many keywords stuffed into meta tags, page content, meta descriptions, etc. as possible.

    Focusing on the reader and delivering original, quality and valuable content is key, and yes, SEO will continue to change frequently – but like you said, those who are adaptable will ride the wave and come out great on the other end! Thanks for sharing:)

  • Danny Denhard

    Very apt article. I think all SEO’s can all relate.
    I have tried to leave SEO twice in my ten years in it and always manage to be dragged back into it.
    There are so many things that change but as Rhea said that is what keep its interesting.
    If someone would have said to me at school I would be doing this they would have thought I was bonkers.

    • Emily Cote


      Thanks so much for the comment! SEO has a strong draw to it. It’s exciting and new and there’s always room to grow. It is also becoming more and more integrated into other marketing areas, like branding and ORM, so it becomes harder and harder to ignore as a field. However, I am also happy that I went out and tried other marketing-related experiences, because it gave me a well-rounded perspective and something to compare the SEO experience to. And yeah, I never could have anticipated this career path when I was in college. :)

  • Nicolette Beard


    I appreciate so much your honesty. I, too, keep getting pulled back in, somehow thinking the grass is greener on the traditional marketing side. I finally realized that I’m an ONLINE MARKETER with deep SEO knowledge and returned to my self-employed state humbled but wiser. Just because most people do not understand what I do, doesn’t devalue it. Your article put a fine point on that. Thank you!

    • Emily Cote


      I am glad you enjoyed it. And I too have gravitated toward the online world after seeing both sides, though I am still a strong proponent of a multi-channel strategy that integrates both online and traditional working together seamlessly. And I admire you for being self-employed to do what you love!

  • Jim Hedger

    You forgot to mention getting around to eating breakfast at noon because you always have, “… just one more thing to do first”. Nevertheless, I’d rather be doing this than anything else I can think of.

  • andrea scarpetta

    you are right! But at leasts it’s not PPC ! That’s REALLY boring!

    • Emily Cote

      Having caught some snippets of PPC presentations at SMX, PPC sounds pretty tedious and complicated. However, I have seen how successful it can be when done right, so I certainly admire it. :)

      • andrea scarpetta

        I’ve done both and i still prefer Seo by a long shot, probably because i’m an hard-core problem solver and i’m addicted to challenges.
        Let’s be clear, PPC is not easy at all and a good ppc specialist may increase the income of a company faster and better than lots of seo specialists. And considering that they can easily get attribution for Brand-related conversions to ppc, they have a BIG advantage over “us” Seo.
        If you like number crunching, PPC is definitely the way to go!
        And yet, i consider Seo much more entertaining :)

    • Fernando

      :) Ditto on that. I truly believe SEO (or SE strategy as I prefer to see it) it’s kinda of an alien creature you need to learn how to get along with, learn his moods and desires – always with a step back in defense so the alien doesn’t smack you in da face while you’re some weird dance after achieving a nice goal. All in all, SEO is what makes our blood flow. Right?

  • Kent

    I agree with this – “Talking About SEO and Doing SEO are Very Different Things”. Talk the talk and walk the talk are different. :)

  • Brendan from Exstatic

    Loving andrea’s analogy on SEO vs PPC.

    I am a PPC specialist and I personally prefer it to SEO for the simple reason that it is quicker …and I am impatient!

    In saying that- there is obviously enormous value in SEO that cannot be overlooked. I think the key is taking the insights you get from your PPC campaigns and integrating them into your SEO strategies.

  • Joana

    Oh God why do you guys and girls keep trying to make SEO sound like a mysterious science when it’s nothing like that.

    Analysing meta tags and css, are you sure you are in 2012 and do you really do any SEO? Sorry to sound a bit rude, but that’s is plain nonsense.

    And 2 more things, adaptability and doing being different then talking about SEO. Do you thing doing adwords campaigns, or even facebook advertising is different? Come on you and everybody knows that the internet is always changing and if you do not adapt you “die”.

    PS: will rank any good for the term “joana”? Got diversify my anchors a bit more.

  • Erica McGillivray

    Love this. You are spot on about the joys and the downsides of SEO. I think another reason we love conferences so much is that we’re finally around people who understand. :)

  • Raj Srivastav

    I often hear, that SEO will not be there after few years. In fact, it looks to be needed more work than now and of course, more patience. nowadays SEO is more about quality then it’s about quantity of content.

  • Shankar

    Hi Emily

    Being in the SEO Industry I have seen major changes companies failing to implement the latest strategy have gone beyond the control. I always try to learn and implement the new things which the newbies don’t understand and they stick to the old methods of the online industry

    To be this industry we need to constantly keep updated and implementing the same. I have also seen spammers considering themselves as experts and indulging in the unethical ways, even after many warnings they don’t change their ways.

    This post clearly calrfies for those who are willing to change themselves in online industry, wonderful post


  • Nick Stamoulis

    Not everyone is cut out for a job in the SEO field. As you pointed out, while in theory what we do is interesting and exciting, the day to day really isn’t. I’d have to agree though- seeing an improvement on site’s that we’ve worked on really does make it all worth it.

  • Uncle Demotivator

    And this feeling of being on an island together builds a strong sense of solidarity among us, at a level I have never witnessed in any other industry.

    Hah, from my POV it’s rather constant war between different SEO approaches.

  • Jack Martin

    Good stuff. I just really loved “Once You Go There, You Can Never Go Back.” Absolutely true.

    It makes me think of when I first began my music theory studies. After a few months, you just can’t listen to music in the same way. A cool guitar line becomes another ‘motive’ to analyze. It’s an insane transformation.

    And after being in SEO and Internet Marketing for about a year now, I’m noticing the same thing. You just can’t ever look at the Internet the same. Really wild. Thanks for talking about it.

  • Paul

    You’ve got funny pictures in there. I think SEO is an ever changin field, one needs to adapt constantly.

  • Chris S

    Great article and definitely written by someone that has obviously been involved in SEO. Only an SEO pro knows that this business can be challenging, interesting, compelling, and boring as hell all at the same time.

  • Kevin Ekmark

    Your story about entering the world of SEO directly reflects mine… I just sort of stumbled onto it… and then I was sucked in. SEO can definitely be a pain in the ass, but I look at it as a puzzle to be solved. The thing about this puzzle is that once you think you’re close to solving it, Google comes over and pushes it off the table… Perhaps I’m a fool for doing it, but I enjoy picking up the pieces and putting the puzzle back together again, hopefully building something more resilient to what changes may come in the future.

  • Jens Peter Nielsen

    Your article made me think about my first encounter with SEO and why I was so fascinated with it – I was working as a computer teacher at a business college and held som IT-courses in the evening for people sent from their work to get an introduction to IT and the Internet. I have no technical background – but had a bachelor in marketing from my early career-days. Soon the students would ask me how they could rank better in Yahoo (pre-google days…I know…it was ages ago!) with their websites, and being unable to answer right away I started studying SEO online and stumbled over the first SEO whitepater from Webposition – what an eye-opener! From then on I never looked back and has spent the last 13 years doing nothing but SEO.

    It IS at times boring and mind numbing but I find if you have the skills and tools you can make SEO more interesting than simply “content SEO” or “linkbuilding”.

    I have developed some diagnostic tools giving larger websites a chance to find large “chunks” of seo-related errors to correct and I have specialized in acting as a consultant mapping what needs to be done and then handing over the job to an internal IT/Marketing-responsible person. It made SEO so much more interesting as I had to challenge myself and my knowledge every day to stay ahead of very SEO-savy IT/Marketing people from the companies I help.

    Thanks for a great article that made stop and think about what I am doing :-)

    Jens Peter

  • poyalsmith

    Really an honest article.I loved the point that “Talking About SEO and Doing SEO are Very Different Things”.SEO keeps on changing.Great post.

  • Jesse

    Your pictures are hilarious, and so true. I am amazed all the time at how fast and often the SEO world changes.

    I too, as others, stumbled into SEO, and now am entrenched in it. It never gets old because of the constant change. No matter how hard it is, it is still addicting and worth it to see improved rankings and traffic because of hard work.

    Thanks for this post.

  • Bharat Patel

    Really career in seo is not that easy after Algo updates like Penguin and panda. I have seen people not knowing how to get adapted to changing scenarios these days. We have to expect the worst from search and engines and never rely on them for traffic.

    When i entered the Seo industry my main motive was to earn some quick cash and from then i never looked back, however i am still learning as always. :)
    @Emily don’t you think there should career guidance seminars given to all who wants to get into Internet Marketing. lol

  • George Murphy

    Great post! I would have to say that I, personally, chose SEO intentionally, assuming that the majority of people who would want to find something on the Internet would do so through a search engine. Yes, the actual work and amount of effort that goes into it is a complete pain in the ass sometimes, but when you check the ranking and traffic reports and see that all of the hard work pays off, and hear from clients that they’re generating business through your efforts, it makes it all worth it.

  • Leo

    I love this. The upside to doing work that a lot of folks don’t understand or wouldn’t enjoy doing is job security. Especially when your industry is growing.

  • Richard A. Lewis

    I enjoyed reading this article and of course can relate. You did miss one big change though over the last 2 (and now 2 1/2 years) and that is the death of the “SEO Consultant”. There might still be a few people out there who can pretend they know everything about On-Site SEO, Social Media, Pay Per Click Marketing and Link Building but few believe them anymore. The dynamics of each of those change on a daily basis. It would be like having a surgeon send all of his assistants out of the operating room to do the surgery alone. As the field changes it also creates more specialists.. and with more specialists will always come more change.